I realize this might all sound a tad presumptuous, but after studying all sorts of recent evidence I’ve figured out exactly what’s wrong with Arsenal, F.C. It took me a while but I got there in the end… thanks, mostly, to watching them on television but also through the weekly wonders of The Tuesday Club: of all things, an Arsenal podcast, presided over by comedian Alan Davies and consistently one of the very best podcasts that money can’t buy (because, you know, they’re free).
Right then, here’s what I’ve concluded. Arsenal have precisely two kinds of problem: one sort that commentators talk about in endless and infuriating detail (my contribution below!), and another sort – brace yourself – that’s all of the following: a) hardly ever mentioned, b) much more significant, and, c) shared by all of elite-level football and, near-as-dammit I reckon, all of elite-level sport generally.
Not wishing to peak too soon, I’ll get to the former problem first. If you’ve even the slightest interest in footballing matters, you’ll already know it. That’s right, folks: Arsenal can’t defend terribly well… It’s a real, good old-fashioned shortcoming, no question. It means not beating Newcastle even with a 4-0 lead… It means losing the Carling Cup Final because your goalkeeper and your central defender can’t decide between them how best to hoof the ball away in the 89th minute… It means giving up a 102nd-minute penalty to Liverpool for no reason whatsoever (the latest goal ever conceded in the Premier League)… It means being 2-0 up in one game against arch-rivals Tottenham, and 3-1 up in another, and not winning either… And it means every time the opposition cross the ball into your penalty area just about anything could happen – save for the one and only thing you want to happen, a defender coolly and reliably heading it away.
Here’s the thing, though. I’m pretty sure that this whole defending lark isn’t that big of a deal… even if it does remain the source of continuous carping (for me too, clearly). Sure, it’s frustrating. But, well, it’s also very fixable, isn’t it? It’s the sort of thing that can be worked out with cones. And lots of arrows on chalkboards. And by grown men in shorts huffing and puffing and shouting at Emmanuel Eboue (he of giving away ultra-late penalties to Liverpool ‘renown’).
Better yet, surely even Arsenal will figure out their personnel deficiencies at some point, won’t they? Not play Manuel Almunia in goal again, for example. Or coax a 41 year-old replacement goalkeeper out of retirement again – even if it is only for ’emergencies,’ and kind of funny. And, hey, it really would be the rummest kind of luck to have your best defender miss two straight seasons through injury, wouldn’t it?
No, the goalkeeper Arsenal have finally settled on (the Scrabble-friendly Wojciech Szczesny) is actually pretty decent and still getting better; Thomas Vermaelen will be fit again next year; and maybe, just maybe, some strengthening of the squad will happen. Plus, between them and alongside Vermaelen, one out of Djourou and Koscielny ought to be okay…
Which gets me (at last!) to What’s Wrong with Arsenal – Problem # 2. Remember? It’s the one I made grandiose claims about in a transparent attempt to keep you reading. The more serious problem that’s spreading through all of top-level sport with horrible efficiency… Well, I put it to you now, as simply as I can:
IT’S JUST NOT AS FUN ANY MORE
These last few weeks, as Arsenal’s year has gone ever-more tit’s up – that’s the nub of it. At least from where I’m sitting. Since their Carling Cup Final defeat, Arsenal have only been ‘playing’ in the loosest possible sense; almost to a man, they haven’t been enjoying it. How utterly disastrous: somehow the players, the management, and all of us lot following along behind, started to make the grave mistake of taking the whereabouts of a ball too seriously.
No kidding, most of the Arsenal players plying their trade right now are crazily good at kicking about a football. They can do things with it quickly that most of us can only dream about doing slowly. They’re young, they’re in extravagantly good shape, and they’ve got talent to burn. But instead of burning it, they’ve spent the ‘best’ part of four months haunted by the prospect of failure. As if it matters! As if the Premier League was a measure of anything other than booting leather into nets!
The shame of it all. Take Denilson, for example. He’s 23 and from Brazil, a nation not exactly known for the playing of timid football – played all this year like someone just told him he’s dying of cancer. Or last year’s new signing Chamakh. He started the season brightly, scoring all sorts of goals with something approaching ease – then he got ‘tired’ and subsequently forgot how to even smile. Or Arsenal’s brilliant little Russian, Andre Arshavin. Running up and down the wing, his legs are often willing but his shoulders tell a different tale – forever slumped, they seem to long for the sanctuary of home. Or how about Theo Walcott? Late last year, he played mostly off the bench, offering short, sharp bursts of unencumbered pace. Now he mostly starts – and the apparent pressure of trying to shape a win, with the game still in the balance, slows those wicked boots of his, and curdles their inventiveness.
These people are playing a game! Fucking-A though, these days you’d never know it. From their manager Arsene Wenger down (by way of his maddening conviction that he’s some kind of tragic hero more sinned against than sinning) Arsenal, F.C., have taken the most wonderful pointless thing ever invented, sport, and tried their hardest to make it matter. And, hell, more even then hopeless defending, the shear bloody effort of it all is slowly killing them.
I don’t know, all the money that modern sport involves, all the adulation, the attention, the ‘pressure…’ Most of the time if you like sport enough you can still look the other way. But sometimes you plain and simply can’t. Sometimes you want to scream, You lucky bastards – the whole world is at your feet, and you’re being rewarded beyond comprehension to play: ENJOY IT!